News Analysis

Meet the ‘Boogaloo boys,’ the violent extremists attracting members of the US military

The future of violent anti-government extremism in the U.S. might be summed up in a single word: Boogaloo
Jared Keller Avatar

The future of violent anti-government extremism in the U.S. might be summed up in a single word: Boogaloo.

On June 6th, Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carillo was arrested in California in connection to 19 separate felonies, including the alleged murder of a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy and serious wounding of two other law enforcement officers in an ambush attack. Weeks later, prosecutors alleged in Carillo’s indictment that the airman had also orchestrated the fatal shooting of a federal officer and wounding of another at a federal building in Oakland amid unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police. According to prosecutors, Carrillo was motivated to target law enforcement officers with violence because of his connections to the ‘Boogaloo’ movement, an amorphous umbrella of far-right, anti-government extremists who seek to spark a second Civil War by, among other acts, murdering police officers.

Yet Carrillo is not the only military-connected American to fall under the movement’s sway: Shortly before Carrillo was arrested, federal authorities captured three apparent Nevada ‘Boogalooers’ — an Army reservist, a Navy veteran, and an Air Force veteran — ahead of an alleged conspiracy to use the Floyd protests to spark more civil unrest and chaos. Prosecutors allege the trio planned to detonate explosives and booby traps across downtown Las Vegas. The previous March, another Navy veteran was killed in a firefight with FBI agents in Missouri after his attempted arrest on suspicion of plotting a terror attack against a Kansas City-area hospital. While far-right anti-government extremists have for decades recruited from within the ranks of the military and veterans community, the rise of the Boogaloo movement and its recent spate of violent activity seems like something else altogether.

So what is the Boogaloo movement, and how do U.S. service members go from otherwise-upstanding citizens to potential domestic terrorists bent on plunging the country into anarchy? They are the newest of a number of violent far-right groups, with a libertarian bent that is perfectly engineered to attract adherents online, according to three experts, who spoke with Task & Purpose about the rise of the ‘Boogaloo boys’ and what it means for the nation’s military-to-extremist pipeline.

What does ‘Boogaloo’ mean?

The term ‘Boogaloo’ itself comes from the 1984 movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. While the movie itself is instantly forgettable, the term ‘Electric Boogaloo’ became a verbal template for poorly-received sequels and, eventually, evolved online into a byword for a second civil war (‘Civil War II: Electric Boogaloo’) that will be carried out with violence in American streets.

According to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, the term ‘Boogaloo’ is now broadly used among a certain subset of far-right extremists to refer to coming violent conflicts, a conflict that so-called ‘Boogaloo boys’ — adherents of the movement frequently identified in crowds by their tactical gear and Hawaiian shirts — are urgently preparing for.

The Boogaloo movement’s particular mantra and symbols are “an extension of far-right white supremacist extermism that has existed for some time, but with a quirky subculture and a contemporary prism,” Levin said. “For some, the ‘Boogaloo’ a race war; for others, it’s a holy war. And that concept’s been a rallying cry within the far-right for decades.”

Members of the Boogaloo movement watch a demonstration near the BOK Center where President Trump held a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020.

Indeed, the ‘Boogaloo’ concept, weaponized in meme form and promulgated on Facebook pages and Discord channels, is “quirky enough to promote curiosity at the very least,” Levin says. “It’s not like a swastika or a Klan hood, it doesn’t have that history, but it does appeal to individuals who have certain leanings.”

There are likely “several thousand” individuals who engage with Boogaloo-themed Facebook pages online, according to Devin Burghart, executive director at the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, although only there are only “a few hundred” at the moment who have participated in protest events over the last six months and self-identified as Boogaloo boys.

When they do show up, it’s “in small numbers, a handful of guys in various different places, normally between two to eight guys at a time,” says Alexander Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “At this point there are hundreds of Boogaloo pages on Facebook and other social networks, pages with hundreds and thousands of followers, and it’s tough to figure out who these guys are.”

But in light of recent high-profile incidents like the Carrillo case and the Las Vegas plot, the actual size of the movement is irrelevant, says Burghart: “Any time a movement moves from online activity, it becomes important as a public safety threat, no matter the size.”

What do Boogaloo boys believe?

Describing the Boogaloo movement has proven a challenge for researchers. “The Boogaloo is not a monolith,” said Friedfeld, describing it as less a movement and more a broad umbrella term to describe extremists for whom their raison d’etat is to prepare for a future civil war. Boogaloo “means different things to different people.”

“The most popular version is the anti-government version for whom the ‘Boogaloo’ is the moment when the American people rise up against government tyranny and free themselves,” Friedfeld explained. “They believe the federal government is stripping away American rights, and they’re not afraid of violence … they possess a ‘do whatever it takes’ mentality.”

A Boogaloo patch seen worn by members of alt-right militias in the United States in 2020

While the movement is broad enough to encompass all manner of extremist — hence its occasional association with white supremacists — the most important pillar beyond the belief in an impending civil war is its libertarian anti-government opposition, a trend best captured in Boogaloo adherents’ fervent distaste for red flag laws that allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms, no-knock warrants and, among other things, police brutality, Friedfeld explains.

“The reason you see these guys showing up at George Floyd protests is because they see a common cause with the [Black Lives Matter] movement,” Friedfeld said, referencing the handful of Hawaiian-shirted Boogaloo boys observed at recent rallies.

“There’s even been an effort within the Boogaloo movement to signal that they align with BLM, he added. “They’ve been going to lengths to say that they aren’t white supremacists and that there’s no room for them, but you see people flow between the two.”

The Second Amendment and the American right to bear arms weighs heavily on the Boogaloo movement. But Levin characterizes it as “an insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment that’s heavily supported within the heavily-armed echelons of the movement, both racist and non-racist.” While the Hawaiian shirt may be the primary indicator of a Boogaloo boy, it usually comes accompanied by a full tactical kit and a high-powered rifle.

Categorizations have their limits. The Boogaloo boys are less members of a coherent movement or ideology and more adherents to a “brand,” as Burghart put it.

“They all share the accelerationist ideals of spurring on a second civil war, so they share some crossover with white nationalist, accelerationist types who are looking to start a race war,” Burghart told me. “But by and large, because they don’t have movement figures or anything drafted as a manifesto,” he said, the Boogaloo movement’s ideology is relatively expansive and incomplete.

Indeed, the Boogaloo boys are “a microcosm of an oftentimes diverse and contradictory type of extremism,” as Levin puts it. “They show up in support of protestors. Some people want to kill protestors. Some people just want to maintain order.”

“Let me put it this way: If a muffler backfires, I don’t want to be standing near one.”

What’s behind the current rise of the Boogaloo boys?

Armed members of the Boogaloo movement dressed for the “big luau” in Richmond, Virginia in January 2020.

Though Friedfeld and the ADL traced the first use of the term Boogaloo to a 2018 Reddit post, appearances of ‘Boogaloo boys’ on America’s streets is a more recent spectacle. 

“Online, it’s a vibrant phenomenon, and the question is what the real-world implications are,” Friedfield explained, giving the example of Aaron Swenson, a 36-year-old Boogaloo boy in Texas who allegedly live-streamed himself in April hunting for a cop to kill.

“Usually it’s a few isolated guys showing up at protests heavily-armed in Hawaiian shirts, but it wasn’t really a real-world phenomenon until about six months ago, when you started to see arrests for violence incidents of plots.”

Burghart traces some of the earliest known Boogaloo sightings to a series of gun rights protests in Virginia in January. “Having been successful at being on the streets in their getups and being heavily armed, that gave a number of other folks who had generally primarily focused on online activism the interest in getting involved in the field,” he said.

Then, the pandemic came. With protestors out in force to rally against government closures, observers began noticing more heavily armed, kitted-out, Hawaiian-shirted Boogaloo boys intermingled with activists and protestors in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, Burghart said, a “key sign that they had moved out of the online realm and into the field, and now we’re starting to see the bitter fruits of that with these Las Vegas arrests and others stretching back to April.”

According to Levin, the broad rise of the Boogaloo movement and the recent spikes in violence are likely triggered by “catalytic events” — the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, the “social reawakening” of the George Floyd protests, and, in turn, the coming 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“They possess a cultural view of an attack on tradition and civil order, but it’s taken to an extreme and further amplified by conspiracy theories and echo chambers online,” Levin said.

What does this have to do with U.S. service members and veterans?

In recent decades, the far-right and white supremacist extremist ecosystem has targeted individuals with military experience for recruitment, Levin says. Indeed, a 2008 FBI report found that “white supremacist leaders are making a concerted effort to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” suggesting that most hardcore extremist groups “have some members with military experience, and those with military experience often hold positions of authority within the groups to which they belong.”

“There’s been an active solicitation and recruitment of military members because of their ability to execute and their know-how,” Levin says, noting that Boogaloo extremist groups believe service members “would find their messages appealing.”

But why? Doesn’t the violent overthrow of the U.S. government and the radical execution of law enforcement officials run counter to the oath to uphold the Constitution that most service members hold dear? Of course, says Levin, but one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Boogaloo movement is its “elasticity,” its ability to, bereft of any strict doctrine or ideology, adjust itself to appeal to a broad swath of troubled individuals.

“Whatever ideology can be found within particular malefactors associated with the group, the Boogaloo movement is often seen as a diverse subculture that took off on social media,” Levin says. “It’s not like joining Aryan Nation, a distinct group with chapters … it’s a one-size-fits-all delivery that doesn’t have any symbols associated with it that would be a total [obstacle] for many wobbers on the mainstream and the extreme.”

Related: US troops see white nationalism as bigger threat to us than Afghanistan and Iraq

Beyond direct recruitment, many U.S. service members and veterans may find themselves more likely to be exposed to Boogaloo ideas than other segments of the population. According to Friedfeld, it’s the online overlap between the Boogaloo movement and the firearms and Second Amendment communities that may end up introducing U.S. service members and veterans to the former, even if accidentally.

Service members and veterans “have an interest in firearms, and sometimes you see people end up on these forums, they get in contact with more ideological gun owners,” Friedfeld explained. “There are so many non-ideological gun owners, but the hardcore Second Amendment activists often operate in the same space so you get introduced to the ideas and that leads you to the Boogaloo.”

“You get exposed to those ideas and it starts this drift,” he added. “You end up in a pseudo-pipeline, a ‘drift’ and slowly you get exposed to ideological stuff and you get pulled in.”

Indeed, unlike other extremist groups, the digital origins of the ‘Boogaloo’ meme reveal one of the movement’s most significant features; according to Burghart, adherents to the group’s particular subculture indicate that the group is uniquely “identity conscious and media savvy,” having already transformed itself multiple times in recent months with the same “elasticity” that Levin had previously noted. 

“The Boogaloo boys are the tip of the spear of a larger problem of far-right paramilitarism in this country,” Burghart says. “You have a significant militasphere that has a wide size and scope, from the Oath Keepers to the Three Percenters” — two popular far-right militia groups that have gained prominence in recent years — “and the Boogaloo boys are part of this much larger problem of people who are buying into this accelerationist ideology, so far that they’re pulling the rest of the militia types into that direction as revolutionaries and less as reactionaries.”

While the U.S. military has in recent years cracked down on far-right extremism in the ranks, despite a Pentagon official saying in February that membership in a white supremacist or neo-Nazi group won’t necessarily get you thrown out. Still, Levin believes that the Defense Department should move to more aggressively combat the flow (or “drift,” as Friedfeld put it) of U.S. service members and veterans towards extremist organizations and networks like the Boogaloo movement.

“We need to have zero tolerance for extremism within the ranks,” Levin says. “We should fortify the military the way we do military installations. We wouldn’t let a card-carrying Nazi walk through the gates of Camp Pendleton, but when they do it online it’s a different story.”

Related: Neo-Nazi group membership may not get you booted from the military, officials say